It’s been a while since I gave an update on what’s happening with White Space Film Productions. This is not because nothing is happening. It’s because a decision was made at the beginning of 2014 to spend the year finishing up a backlog of work in order for us to be able to move on to other things. At the end of 2013 we had 15 short films, (including the 12 episodes of The Drama Sessions), in various stages of post-production. This was something that had to be addressed and although I would have liked to carry on with one shoot after another it would have been ridiculous to do so, simply ensuring a further jam in the system. And so, the slow, often laborious post-production process has been grinding on. But I thought that a brief-ish update on where we are with everything might now be of interest, hence this blog entry. To take each project one at a time.
THE DRAMA SESSIONS
All of the episodes have now been edited by Joanna who has done a great job. At the end of May we re-shot some of Episode 9. Parts of Episode 6 need to be re-cut. And basically, that’s it for the editing. In May we filmed the supplementary improvisation exercises. I am now engaged in creating the written material for all of the episodes. Another Dubbing Editor has been found, making two, and these two will now share the task of working on the sound mix. A couple of episodes, 5 and 6, were not shot to the same standard as the rest, (which in my view is high), and these will need substantial work done on them particularly in terms of colour grading. An animation for the credit sequence at the start of each episode is now only a couple of weeks away from completion. And finally, copyright is being sought for a song used in Episode 3. Within a fortnight we should be in a position to use Episode 1 along with all it’s accompanying material as a showcase, both for the purpose of raising investment and of making decisions about how best to get all 12 episodes onto the internet on a fully functioning website.
LOW DOWN ALLEY BLUES and VIOLIN
These are now being sent to festivals. Low Down Alley Blues only started its journey to the festival circuit just three weeks ago. That is, very nearly two years after it was originally filmed. I have had to learn patience.
WHITE SPACE IN A PAINTING
This is due to be showcased at the Lucerne Film Festival in Switzerland in front of potential distributors in October.
WHERE FAIRYLAND BEGINS
There have been numerous hold-ups with this, mainly due to a decision to wait on certain personnel whose commitments were elsewhere. However, it’s not only that. I’ve been generally unhappy with the film itself, the material for which has not quite lived up to my expectations. The performances are excellent and we have a rough-cut that, except for the last minute or two, works very nicely. And yet I’m still finding it difficult to get a handle on the whole thing such that I can feel satisfied with what it is I’m seeing. I’ve now asked Joanna to take over the editing as a fresh pair of eyes and in order to facilitate a speedier moving forward. Where Fairyland Begins is an example of White Space’s increasing dedication to quality. The last couple of years have been a bumpy, even arduous learning period but we are at a stage now where quality counts and is expected. No project will ever see the light of day, whatever the financial loss, if it is not deemed to be of a good professional standard. I’m expecting that solutions to Fairyland will be found but ultimately I am not sentimental about any project.
Not gone by any means. The fact is that if our prospective partners on this one, hellolove, are still on board and there has been nothing to indicate they are not, and if a Producer can definitely be attached to the project, I will then get the lift built and it will be all go. I’d aim to try to pin this down within the next few weeks one way or another.
TERMS AND CONDITIONS
To a large extent we are attempting to clear much of the project backlog so that we can have a clear run at T&C. Again, I would like to find a Producer for this and then an Art Director. Although once we start shooting the film it will be a case of steady progress, nevertheless it would be good to be able to raise some capital towards completion costs. To this end a prospectus/costings document will be created simultaneously with a similar document for LEONARDO’S PHOTOGRAPH.
White Space Film Productions has been running for a relatively short time. At the point of shooting White Space in a Painting there was no company as such. The intention was merely to make a film. Then, throughout 2012, that is from the January to November of that year, we concentrated on nothing else but the filming of The Drama Sessions. In a sense, therefore, the company as an entity to be developed and promoted in its own right only really became a reality in 2013. To date our tally is 16 short films, the acquisition of an award, the offer of a showcase at a film festival and the placing of the company on a business footing as a Limited enterprise. On top of those titles listed above there are more potential projects in the pipeline. BLUE SKY AT MIDNIGHT, (the third of the childhood films); THE ROARING BOYS, (a tv series); and at least two features, THE DRESS and POSTER GIRL, (working title and this latter has not yet reached script completion).
How many of these new projects will actually get made is open to speculation. Should Where Fairyland Begins be finished to the standard required then Blue Sky at Midnight will definitely be shot. But what I’ve discovered is that a film company slate is incredibly fluid with one project rising as another falls. Another discovery is that what appears to be a lull is actually no such thing. Activity is constant if not visible.
Soon, White Space Film Productions will be creating a new brochure which will be posted on the website. It will, I hope, provide further insights into the company’s progress and exciting developments.
I like branding. In this business everything becomes a brand if successful. Columbia Pictures is a brand. Warner Brothers is a brand. George Clooney is a brand. Whenever the name is mentioned we know what to expect. The day an actor’s name becomes a brand is the day that actor will have made it. And I don’t mean will have become famous. I mean that his or her name will have grown to have become synonymous with a particular package, with a certain idea. Branding is about giving concrete expression to an idea, giving it an identity, persona or personality. Of course, the way a brand is expressed changes over time. A tin of Heinz baked doesn’t look quite the same as it did thirty years ago, though the essential ingredients of the design remain. This is true of most brand identities, Coca Cola for instance or Google. But to have a symbol or sign for a particular product, one that is immediately recognizable, has always been regarded as immensely important when it comes to generating sales.
And so, we unveil a logo for White Space Film Productions. No, this is not necessarily the last word but it is a start and it will certainly do for now. It combines the notion of simplicity with that of liveliness. Essentially it is a red rectangle, (red for practical purposes as black, a first thought, could be difficult to see on dark backgrounds), in which there is a white square, (the ‘White Space’), in which there are three circles, (representing the front of a camera lens). Very simple. Rectangle. Square. Circle. Indeed, it is so basic that it might easily be sketched on the back of a napkin. But then there is the liveliness of the lens flare. Simplicity conjoined to action.
From now on, the logo will feature in the credits, either front or back, of all of our films. And you can see it in situ, so to speak, on the About page on this website. I look forward to a time when it is recognizably White Space Film Productions.
On Saturday we spent all day filming the improvisations which will eventually act as part of the supplementary material for The Drama Sessions. It was an exhausting day but we achieved what we set out to do, film 22 exercises. Below are a few screenshots of the actors involved.
The Drama Sessions are now moving on apace. We have started work on the sound and certainly two or three will need colour grading. (Interesting note: overall we used four Directors of Photography during the year long Drama Sessions shoot and the difference in tone and approach, even accounting for the variety of locations and change of seasons, is very noticeable). By the end of this week The Drama Sessions page will be expanded to include a trailer, screenshots and a listing, with titles, of each of the individual episodes. It’s been a marathon, (our feature film, Terms and Conditions, another marathon, is on the horizon), but we are getting there.
We shot Low Down Alley Blues in July 2012. It was then put into a drawer for about nine months before editing began. Then it went into post, a process which, because of one problem or another, took a year. I’m glad to say that we now have a film and one that I’m very happy with. Soon a trailer will be put onto the website. Sometimes delays can be very frustrating, sometimes maddening. But the delay in this case, just as with the delay before we started editing Where Fairyland Begins, has had something of a formative effect in that it’s given me time to firm up what it is that I want to do with film and the direction in which I want to go with it.
I suppose the primary purpose in shooting a short film is to somehow fulfill the desire of the filmmaker. A director makes a short film for much the same reason that a painter paints a picture. Because they have a need to do so. Each has an artistic purpose. Another reason is that a short film provides those working on it with a training ground. Yet another reason is that once completed it can be submitted to festivals in the hope of being shown and, once there, to sufficiently impress those with some clout in the industry. Increasingly, however, I’m becoming of the opinion that the true home of the short film is less the cinema, (where they are rarely shown), and much more the art gallery, (where they are often shown). It’s interesting that Steve McQueen, (12 Years a Slave), began life as a filmmaker with shorts that were mostly seen in galleries and which earned him the Turner Prize in 1999. Of course, the difference between many short films in galleries and those shown at film festivals is that the former often lack a narrative, focusing instead on a moment, idea or concept. But this merely raises questions about the whole nature of story-telling, of what it is that actually constitutes a story. I don’t want to get into that here but it’s something that has been on my mind enough to have affected the way I am now perceiving my own work.
Low Down Alley Blues
The musical score and non-linear editing of this was crucial although, in fact, Low Down is very linear and in many ways very traditional. Though quite rich in associations it is nevertheless story-telling of a recognizable kind. When set against some of the short films of, say, the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, works by Menzel and Nemec, it is positively tame. However, the playful editing gives notice of a desire for further experimentation in that area and the music was particularly important. Here it is a use of Free Jazz in the role almost of another character. I am now very aware of how vital it is to find the right score, to work with the right composer. In both editing and music, Low Down Alley Blues is a statement of intention and one that on the whole I am very pleased with.
This was always intended as the first film of a trilogy in which children are the main characters. As such it was inevitably going to be revisited. By this I don’t mean that I have any plans to re-shoot it. Not at all. But neither am I saying that it is a fully completed vision. This is because I’ve become more and more aware of what I am looking for in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy. Though Violin stands alone as a ‘story,’ it is, to some extent, merely the first third of a whole. This means that matters pertaining to the colour palette as well as to issues of light and shade may yet have to be addressed.
Questions about colour, about light and shade, mood and atmosphere, have been pre-occupying me a lot lately. Recently, I’ve been taking a number of photographs of light, just a few of which can be seen here:
This fascination with patterns and intensities of light, of colour, of music, of sound, – the creation of mood, of atmosphere, – are becoming of enormous importance to me. Particularly so as I think ahead to…
Blue Sky at Midnight
Before talking about Where Fairyland Begins I want to jump to what will be the third part of the trilogy. Where Violin is clearly understandable in terms of its visual references, (though immensely static, almost a series of moving/still photographs, a quality that I want to pursue in future work on it), Blue Sky at Midnight will make a break with easy familiarity. Editing will be fast and playful, more reminiscent of Low Down Alley Blues than Violin. Colours will be primary, even moving towards a more artificial, unreal technicolour. Music will be extremely important but will often fragment in line with the fragmentation of the shapes we are seeing on the screen. And, yes, a lot of shots, even foreground shots, will be out of focus. I have my own visual touchstones for this, Saul Leiter and Uta Barth for instance, a sample of whose photographic work can be seen below:
As you can see perhaps, my interest in the short film, whilst ensuring that a story/narrative element remains, is becoming increasingly art oriented.
Where Fairyland Begins
This is particularly true of Where Fairyland Begins, the second film in the trilogy. What I thought I was making here is certainly not the film we’ll end up with. Indeed, so much has my perspective altered that after it’s finished I would hope to take extracts from the film and employ them in an art gallery context. I have now brought an established composer on board whose music is not of the kind you could ever find in a music library. Instead, like Gail Brand’s music in Low Down Alley Blues it is much more visceral, much more exciting, much less easy to pin down. I’ll also be bringing in a visual effects person to work on the film, especially on its beginning and end. And my intention is to have an actual fairy. Yes, you heard correctly. Watch this space!
What all of this means is that my journey with the short film format has not only been a necessary training ground but has helped me to articulate just what it is that I am looking for in terms of a visual/aural language. I had thought that after shooting a few shorts I would move on to features, – we are about to go into pre-production on Terms and Conditions, – and never return. After all, this seems to be the trajectory of many filmmakers. I no longer think that. The short film is providing me with a canvas on which to continually experiment. The films themselves won’t always succeed, let alone be liked, but that’s not the point. Their main function is to provide me with a platform from which to find my own voice. This is why it is a format that continues to be important to me and why I shall continue to treat it with respect.
A coda. I said at the beginning of this post that the main difference between the short film as seen in the cinema and those seen in art galleries is that the latter frequently lack a recognizable narrative or story. As an example of this I’d like to leave you with I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much by Pipilotti Rist, a German conceptual artist. No story as such but 5 minutes of sheer exuberance and craziness and in-your-faceness. Like the work of many other artists of her kind, the pushing of the envelope and the exploring of boundaries is something that I continue to be attracted by.
Well, it’s finally finished. First draft. 92 pages. 76 scenes. Terms and Conditions written. It’s an odd feeling, contradictory in some ways. You live with a script for some time, although the writing of this was rather broken up due to other commitments. Gradually it gets to a point where it’s very difficult to think of anything else. You go through the motions, – smile when expected, nod in all the right places, speak when spoken to, – but really your mind is elsewhere and the people with whom you are talking somehow have less of reality about them than do the characters you’re creating. It’s like living in twilight. But then, and here’s the contradictory part, you complete the script and although utterly exhausted you feel simultaneously invigorated and ready to take on the world again.
I’m pleased about this particular script, not least because it’s the first full length one I’ve written in nearly five years. It’s not that I haven’t been writing at all in that period. There was White Space in a Painting, Violin, Where Fairyland Begins and the twelve episodes of The Drama Sessions. Not to mention supplementary material for the recently completed Intensive Course and this and that blog. But I’ve just not felt that I’ve had either the time or inclination to embark on a full length work as they can be quite tricky and require a lot of concentration. And yet I am a writer. That’s what I do. I do it well and in the past have been well paid for it. I guess it was important for me to prove to myself that I can still do it. Not only that, a film company cannot live on the making of short films forever. I’ve learned a lot from making those, and there will indeed be others, but there comes a time when you need to jump off and explore beyond that format, (for the same reason we’ll be looking at developing a tv series, the synopses for five episodes of which have been completed and half of episode one written).
So, what of Terms and Conditions? In a way that’s the same question as what does it take to write a film script? As I say, they can be tricky and demand a lot of concentration. They are tricky because, – and I guess this goes for all writing of fiction, – once the writer has set the ball rolling, once the framework has been created, the parameters set, he or she is in many ways no longer in control. A writer has developed characters which, like human beings, possess their own logic and therefore have to remain faithful to that logic. So, for instance, if a writer would like something to happen at, say, page 85, it can only do so if the characters involved in that event are the type who would effect it. Without consistency of character there can be no consistency of plot. Frequently a writer will have an idea for a plot without having sufficiently established characters through whom that plot is able to evolve. This means that a writer of fiction has to be peculiarly sensitive to people and their behaviour. A character is not just a peg on which to hang a story. In the end, a character is the story. To get them right so that your 92 pages are sustainable demands a lot of concentration, a lot of focus.
An example of what I mean occurred in the writing of Terms and Conditions. There is a scene late on in the script between two of the characters, Alice and Emma. I was having trouble with this, so much so that I felt irritable and on edge. The characters were saying things, by which I mean that I was writing things for them to say, but they seemed to keep turning to look at me in a rather confused way. In consequence, I too was confused. What was going on? Well, what was going on was that I’d had an idea about where the scene should go but that, frankly, by that point it wasn’t up to me. I was literally putting words into the character’s mouths. They’d been given a life of their own and it wasn’t my role to dictate what they were to say if it meant acting in opposition to the logic of those lives. The fact was that I’d given the scene to Emma when it was actually Alice’s scene. That’s why, whenever Emma opened her mouth everything sounded like a lie. The character knew that before I did which is why it wasn’t working. By simply shifting perspective and being willing to abandon the idea I’d come up with the scene got onto the right track and logic was restored. Like God, writers are never completely in control of their creations.
Now we move slowly but inexorably into the pre-production stage. This will be a little strange for me. In the past I’ve been lucky enough to have been commissioned. Most of the work I’d written on spec was optioned or a substantial amount of interest had been expressed in it. (Oddly though, my favourite script out of the ones I’ve written, The Dress, wasn’t touched at all, didn’t get a bite. Oh well…Actually, I’m quite pleased as it’s another one I’d like to do myself). I’m used to people poring over my scripts with a view to my revising or rewriting them, something which is par for the course. On some scripts I’ve done as many as 20 or more rewrites. On the other hand, where T&C is concerned I have a 1st draft of a film script that I’m going to direct myself. This means that while I can be responsible to and for my own vision it will also entail my being peculiarly sensitive to the dramatic impetus of the piece. This is exciting but at the same time nerve-wracking. For the time being ‘exciting’ is paramount.
So, the script for Terms and Conditions is complete. The Drama Sessions has been edited and now just awaits the sound mix. Low Down Alley Blues will be finished in the next few days, (an announcement about this will be coming shortly). Violin is finished. Where Fairyland Begins is being edited. And there are a number of other things bubbling under. Yes, I think for the moment ‘exciting’ is definitely the right word. Please continue to watch this space.
I’m pleased to announce that we now have an actor to play the role of Frank in Terms and Conditions. Davide Forde, (left), participated in the Intensive Course that I recently held and although I never consciously see workshops as places in which to audition people it would be disingenuous of me to claim that such a thing never happens. David made so many breakthroughs and such progress overall during the course that I became convinced that he would be able to navigate the demanding role on offer. Basically, he’s the right man for the job and I’m delighted to be able to welcome him on board.
As to the film itself. The script is now no more than two weeks from completion. Indeed, in one sense it’s already finished. It simply needs to be put onto the page. What then? Well, although the main roles have been cast there are others to be filled. There will not, however, be the usual first read-through. It’s unnecessary. This isn’t theatre. Instead we’ll be having a get-together over drinks at some point in the near future, probably towards the end of May. It’s then that we’ll chat about the script and establish a sense of relationships. We will also be watching a lot of films together, films that I regard as being influential on the look, style and overall feel of T&C. I will be having many discussions with the actors. Once an Art Director is on board they too will talk extensively with the actors. I and my Art Director will also be engaged in numerous conferences with the Cinematographer. And when I say numerous I mean numerous. I’ll need to know what lighting and what camera and exactly what lenses will be used for the various shots. To some extent this will be dictated by location and that will be yet another issue. It’s essential that I find the right locations. And if for the sake of the story I have to paint a particular colour on the walls of those locations then I will need to get permission to do so. Equally, if I need to acquire furniture in order to give a certain sense of character to a scene then furniture will have to be begged, borrowed or bought. I’ll also be looking to acquire some idea of the soundscape of the film before we begin. Fundamentally, I’ll need people who are totally committed to the project and if they are not 100% committed, if they are not willing to go above and beyond what is necessary, then they will have to go and I’ll find somebody else. This is not a short film where, in the past, allowances have been made. This is a feature. And there is absolutely no point in embarking upon it unless it’s done right. So, questions as seemingly trivial as what does ‘white’ mean in this or that context have to be addressed; questions like what kind of shoes does a character wear, even if those shoes are never in shot, have to be asked. Whilst I’ve learned that there is always an element of chance involved when shooting a film, that you can’t guarantee everything, problems occur, mistakes happen, you can certainly minimize errors by very careful and, if required, extensive pre-production.
Because of the peculiar nature of the filming process for Terms and Conditions we are looking at a long road ahead. But it’s a road whose goal will be satisfactorily reached if the preparations for the journey have been carefully and thoroughly worked out.
First of all, a digression. So, 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture at the Oscars. But it wasn’t given the Best Director award and didn’t have the Best Actor or Actress in it. Hmm. So, in what way exactly was it the Best Picture? It did get the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Is that it? On the other hand, Gravity received the Best Director award but that wasn’t enough to make it the Best Picture. Hmm. So, Alfonso Cuaron who won Best Director for Gravity was best at what then? Certainly he wasn’t best at making the Best Picture. It would seem that 12 Years a Slave was the best picture because of its screenplay but in spite of its director and actors, (who weren’t best at anything), which is kind of weird. But maybe I’m missing something.
Strangely, we weren’t nominated for anything at the Oscars. Either this was a huge oversight on the part of the selectors or because we hadn’t entered anything. I think the latter reason the most likely. However, we do have one announcement. White Space in a Painting has been selected to be showcased in front of potential distributors at the Lucerne Film Festival later in the year. In the words of their communication to us: “All showcase movies will be given to 23 qualified distributors who may or may not contact you about a future distribution possibility.” I’m very pleased about this because it just goes to show that something that you think is finished with can still surprise you by giving you a wink, jumping up and shouting “Hey, I’m still here!” In other words, anything can happen at any time.
We are now making a poster for White Space in a Painting which I’ll publish as soon as it is finished. In the meantime I just want to thank and to congratulate everyone who worked on the project.
Below are four of the actors so far cast in Terms and Conditions. The script is over half way to being completed. Once it is finished, pre-production can get underway. We are still looking for a major character, that of Frank. He is in his 40s, slightly edgy, can veer from rather depressed to hyper-active. Other characters are still to be cast.
For those who know me as the director of a couple of short films whose theme is that of childhood, Violin and Where Fairyland Begins, you may be surprised to learn that Terms and Conditions is a film that will be physically and, even more so, psychologically and emotionally violent. I believe that so far we have actors who are equal to the task.
Beth Mayoh plays Alice, a woman who wants to save her marriage, wants to do the right thing, but for whom ‘the right thing’ comes at too high a price.
Timothy Paul Jobe plays Peter. Peter teaches at a University. He believes in the power of reason. In the end, however, he is unable to stem a growing force of irrationality which threatens to push him to the brink of madness.
Emer Mary Morris plays Emma, a young woman for whom nothing seems to matter, for whom morality is merely a word and murder is just one neutral, even banal event amongst many others.
Helen Kent plays Claire. She is married to Peter and to a life where abuse is commonplace. But even the most abused and put-upon have a breaking point.
As The Gift starts its journey to this or that festival I thought I’d put out a Director’s Statement about it.
We will also be releasing the trailer on Vimeo for you to share with friends and family. This will happen over the next couple of days and I’ll let you know when it does.
“The Gift was a labour of love. The intention was to write and direct a film the focus of which would be childhood but whose execution would be distinctly truthful and unsentimental. At the centre of the film is love and loss and how that sense of loss spills over to touch an ordinary family. It was therefore important to have as little dialogue as possible in order that nothing might get in the way of an immediacy of emotion. It was also important that the form should reflect the content. For this reason the number of individual shots were relatively few and were carefully paced to produce an almost static quality mirroring the idea of waiting. Whilst the grandfather breathes, everyone else holds their breath, so to speak, as they wait for the inevitable end. Silence permeates the film just as the colour palette is kept purposely flat, pastel, almost washed-out, a palette only alleviated by the bright, even somewhat over-bright, burst of colour in the garden. Suddenly there is a brief promise of renewal and regeneration. But even here, in the end, it is merely the sense of waiting that is all-pervasive. A gentle breeze blows, Nature pauses, there is a quiet anticipation but nothing happens.
Meanwhile, the child is struggling to come to terms with the end of the relationship with his grandfather. In a situation like this there is nothing that anyone can do, there is simply a feeling of utter helplessness. But the child plays the violin. The bow ‘breathes’ across the strings. For a few moments the heavy silence is broken. And perhaps there is yet a gift that he can give, a demonstration of love, a kind of sharing.
Because of the delicacy of the subject matter it was important in The Gift that the acting be completely truthful, indeed that there should be nothing that might be construed as ‘acting’ at all. It was equally important that there should be no shots introduced that were surplus to requirements. Any such shots would break the formal elements that were so essential to the emotional content of the film.
For me, The Gift was a marriage of form and content, a marriage in which nothing happens but at the same time everything happens, in which simple but powerful emotions are treated with integrity and given the space and time to be truthfully expressed.”
If I had been to Film School I guess White Space in a Painting would have been made in what would have been the equivalent of my first term. The Drama Sessions would have been ongoing throughout my first and second year. Low Down Alley Blues would have been shot at the end of my first year. Violin at the end of my second year and Where Fairyland Begins during the first term of my third year. Of course, this is silly. But I like to use such an imaginary timeline to comfort myself with the notion that I’ve been engaged in a period of learning and in order to be able to measure in my own mind some kind of progress. I’ve learned a lot, mostly via a whole glut of mistakes. But then I’ve never been worried about making mistakes or even of making a fool of myself. I don’t really know any other way of learning. Right now, however, the most important thing for me is that I feel that I’ve arrived at the end of a two year period that might best be characterized as one of deferring. I am at last clear about the sort of films I want to make and although I’ll always listen to the opinions of others, always consult and collaborate, the only thing that matters is that the film that I want to make gets made. Previously, if someone with the requisite experience had come to me to say that such and such was impossible I would no doubt have deferred to their greater technical knowledge. Now I would tell them that ‘impossible’ simply means they haven’t found a way of doing it yet, that they need to think round corners, find a new angle or even damned well invent something.
And so, in my ‘third year’ and with all sense of a need to defer happily evaporated I arrive at Terms and Conditions.
Terms and Conditions
A sort of Journal of Progress though obviously there’s very little progress to report at the moment. Early days. A notion constituting a beginning. A start, at least. Foundation. Basis. Genesis. People have enquired about taking on the job of Art Director and DoP. I’ve met with a very good DoP. Actors have asked to be involved. Two have been cast. At this stage, ideas percolate, fizz, firm up, take hold, hopefully, eventually, head towards a fixed point on what can often feel like a continuously shifting horizon. Motto:
Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.
1. The other day I watched Passion, a 1982 film by the French director Jean-Luc Godard. It was interesting for all sorts of reasons not least the fact that it had no plot or rather the plot was so fragmented, so embedded in a variety of what at times seemed disparate actions, as to be hardly decipherable. Surely a plot must provide a sense of continuity. Surely the plot is the story, is what the film is about and for that reason must be easily comprehended. In Passion, (‘the story of…’ ‘about…’) a Polish filmmaker attempting to make a film that has no story and that therefore no one wants to buy, (and actually it’s not ‘about’ that either), Godard eschews this convention. Indeed, one could say that Godard’s whole career, from À bout de souffle through Bande à part, Éloge de l’amour, right up to Notre Musique, was spent eschewing or undermining conventions, of subverting the rules and regulations encapsulated in should and ought. A plot is a fictional construct that bears little resemblance to reality, life usually being messier and more open-ended than the standard plot allows for. For Godard, the traditional plot form was often too small for the intellectual and emotional content at the heart of his films so that in consequence they were simply permitted to spill over the edges and out of the frame. If the framing structure proved inadequate to compass the idea then clearly it was necessary to shift or rebuild the structure. Think film. Re-think film.
If the above makes it sound as if Terms and Conditions will be without a plot or story then I must disabuse anyone of that notion. There will indeed be a storyline, a narrative thread. But if I am not willing to reference Godard’s Passion I certainly am his Une Femme Mariee, for instance, or his Vivre Sa Vie, films which allow for a breaking of conventions within a more recognizably conventional, which is to say essentially narrative, structure.
Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.
For Godard every idea demanded to be considered on its own merits which meant in practice that it frequently warranted a different way of being expressed. In Anglo-American cinema this is hardly ever the case. Though there have been many great films produced by the Hollywood system, indeed some of them would be on my personal list of all time favourites, – In A Lonely Place, It’s A Wonderful Life, Vertigo, the shamefully undervalued The Swimmer, – it is nevertheless a system that rarely deviates from what it knows it does best: entertain. A formula was found at some point in the early days of cinema and the ingredients have stayed more or less the same ever since resulting in schematic constructions built piecemeal via working methods that have been shown to succeed in ensuring box-office returns.
2. A few weeks ago I watched Curtain, the final episode of Poirot. Scene: two men in conversation in a garden. Approximately two minutes and consisting of approximately eight cuts. Three shots of a man speaking; three reaction shots; a couple of two-shots, one square on, one from a slightly high angle. Why? Perhaps a fear that the audience would get bored if deprived of the ubiquitous cut-aways? Whatever the reason, we were presented with the unsurprising, a way of doing things so utterly commonplace, that most audiences would not have given a thought to what it was they were seeing. What we accept, schematic constructions, a well-worn blueprint, conventions retained for the sake of it, is ultimately a matter of habit.
“Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.”- Samuel Beckett.
Taste of Cherry by the director Abbas Kiarostami. Scene: a man enters the cabin of a security guard ostensibly to have a cup of tea. A conversation ensues. But there are no two-shots, no cut-aways, no reaction shots. Indeed, we never see the security guard at all, we only ever hear his voice, his part of the conversation. Breaking convention for the sake of it? No. Kiarostami had decided that the security guard wasn’t important, that the focus had to be kept on the attitude, the agitation, of the protagonist. It was a considered decision based upon what was deemed to be the emotional essence of the scene. The same thing happens in Margareta Lazarova by the wonderful Czech director Frantisek Vlacil. A man talks, we see the reaction of those to whom he is talking but we never actually see the man himself.
3. Here are two sentences:
“I love you and want to marry you.”
“I hate you and want to kill you.”
Of course, the difference in meaning is enormous. But the syntax is exactly the same. The form is that of subject, object, verb. Unfortunately, however, this linguistic structure, the grammatical and syntactical rules, does not reflect the meaning that the words convey. ‘Love’ is in diametrical opposition to ‘hate’ but this difference is not reflected in the shape of the sentences. We thus find ourselves imprisoned by the limits of language, by its unyielding form. This is why writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf applied themselves to re-fashioning and re-ordering words on a page in an effort to make language conform to meaning. This is why the Oulipo writers of France, those like Queneau and Perec, tried to find “new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy” as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration. It sometimes feels as if the artist’s perpetual quest is to discover some way of escaping from a language that, by its very nature, refuses to allow us to be free. (This desire for expressive freedom is equally true for those in the fine arts. For instance, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was an effort on his part to escape the two-dimensionality of space and the motionlessness of time in painting).
Language is totalitarian. Filmmakers such as Godard and Kiarostami are not alone in attempting to liberate themselves from, if you like, this ‘dictatorship of the sentence.’
I find the director Alain Resnais very difficult. Though one of my favourite films is his Last Year at Marienbad he made absolutely no concessions to his audience. Film, like every art, exists to be communicated. But that doesn’t mean to say that an audience has to be spoonfed. To do that would be to infantilize, it is essentially an implied insult. Resnais never spoonfed. Take Muriel. What is happening in Muriel? What could it be said to be about? (‘About’ again. “What is it about? What is the story about? What is the film about?” This word ‘about’ is itself a kind of delimitation and envelopment). Ultimately it is, I suppose, ‘about’ time or more specifically memory and for Resnais the question was how best to portray that? Memory works as discrete fragments so that the type of formal syntactical structure as evidenced by the sentence hardly applies. When Marcel in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past‘ bites into the madeleine, a banal event that sparks off a powerful memory from his childhood, the action is associative, not linear, as from A to B, but all at once. So, a scene from Muriel that I find fascinating: Three people walk down a street at night. They talk about this and that, about the town for instance. Suddenly Resnais interjects with scenes of the town in daylight. We return to the three people at night, their faces first in repose then exhibiting fleeting expressions of anxiety, each face, each person separated from the others. The juxtaposition of images of day and night has already given us a feeling of unease for appearing to ignore continuity or at least an expected symmetry of shots but this has merely served to reflect the growing uneasiness of each of the characters. Dispensing with the mere linearity of a walk, a movement through space and time between two points, Resnais has instead employed an associative method in which space and time resonate with meaning for his characters, reflecting something of their inner condition. He has broken with convention in order to explore underlying tensions and emotions.
4. I would say, though time and again I would expect counter-examples to disprove me, that generally speaking a major difference between Anglo-American cinema and that of many other countries, those in Europe certainly, is that between a linear style of film making and an associative. (And immediately I can think of my own counter-example in a work such as Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives). As I say, generally speaking American and British cinema proceed along lines that can be metaphorically exemplified in the form of the sentence. They tell a story from A to B of the kind subject, object, verb. They have a beginning, a middle and end and usually in that order. This means that whilst it might be true that the content of any such film may surprise us, the structure, the formal elements enclosing it, rarely do. We know what to expect. There is no subversion here so that from a perspective of familiarity the audience feels comfortable.
That subversive sensibility, a willingness to experiment, that is frequently a hallmark of European cinema and was certainly so in the various New Waves of the 1960s can be seen at play in the works of such filmmakers as Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman, Godard, Pialat, Dreyer, Bresson and so on. Subversive in the sense not of a fatuous attempt to be avant-garde or cutting-edge but in the goal to prioritize feeling and intellectual analysis over a simplistic and predictable sequencing of events. For them, philosophies of feeling expressed as fragments of being, (philosophies of Being expressed as fragments of feeling), constitute the ‘plot’ because it is in these that ultimately we discover humanity with all the associated ideas of what it means to be human. On many occasions this has led to an almost faithful rendering of the idea concentrated in the Latin tag “Ut pictura poesis,” “as is painting so is poetry.” As is the picture so is poetry. As is poetry so is film. In the same way that poetry resonates via different nuances of meaning, the various poetic forms helping to articulate those meanings, (only compare E.E.Cummings with Robert Frost, Walt Whitman with Richard Wilbur), so decisions about the form of a film will assist in the extrapolation and elucidation of meanings that go far beyond the merely informative. It was to this end that Antonioni directed that the trees of a nearby wood be painted red in his film Red Desert, (a decision that on this occasion failed to live up to expectation due to the paint appearing black in the camera lens), and that Bergman’s choice of colour in Cries and Whispers (above) was of paramount importance as it reflected the emotional journey of each of the protagonists.
(Speaking of Red Desert, just see how the choice of landscape location creates an immediate association with the lonely and alienated lives portrayed in the film:)
5. I’ve already mentioned an exception to my generalisation regarding the division between Anglo-American linearity and European associationism in the work of Terence Davis. Another exception is Stanley Kubrik with his film The Shining. In 1980 The Shining was released to almost universally poor reviews. The consensus seemed to be that it broke all the rules for what a horror film should be. The main complaint was that so much of it used wide shots in bright light. Surely this was the very thing to destroy tension as the horror genre functioned best in tight, dark, claustrophobic spaces. It was as if the confines of Dracula’s coffin had become a metaphor for the form of the horror film in general. Kubrik’s decision to subvert this was courageous and revolutionary. And, of course, we now accept that it worked. The very openness of the hotel in which the action takes place creates a sense of isolation, of alienation, that is wholly unnerving. Kubrik did not break convention for the sake of it but because he realized that isolation in space with all the resulting paranoia and hallucinatory paraphernalia that such isolation can engender, as in a desert for instance, could be as terrifying as enclosure in a restricted area.
6. Making it clear. I love many American films (though fewer British; some of Ealing perhaps, early Hitchcock). Just as there were certainly two great ages of French cinema, (1930s and 1960s), I would suggest two equally great periods for Hollywood, (1930s-40s and 1970s). Equally I can enjoy the slick professionalism of a Terminator, a Robocop or an X-Men. With such pictures I don’t have to think because I know what to expect. Thinking is not required of me and I certainly never feel enticed or badgered to do so. As a passive spectator I can switch off, awed by the special effects, only ever presented with a breathing space in preparation for the next inevitable set-piece. Sometimes I’ll enjoy an ‘indie’ movie by Wes Anderson (Rushmore) or Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) or Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) or Hal Hartley (Simple Men), taking pleasure in their wry humour, sassy dialogue and oddball look at life. But, whether studio or independent, the form of these films is essentially the same. The language structure, the traditional syntax remains firmly in place. (Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation) appears to want to attempt to circumvent this familiar pattern but in my view he only succeeds, when he succeeds at all, by making his films look strangely akin to extended music videos). Under present conditions, Godard’s questioning of convention would hardly be countenanced either in the big studio productions or the smaller independents, (in any case, an ‘indie’ is usually only ever as ‘indie’ as its investors allow it to be. The extended battle that Alexander Payne had to endure in order to get his film Nebraska made in black and white is a recent example). To return to the point. There are times when, like everyone else, I am content to lie back and luxuriate in formal predictability, in linear storytelling, as an antidote to the stresses of work and of life in general. But I must say that it is the considered breaking of convention, and I emphasize ‘considered’, that I find most exhilarating and fundamentally satisfying. It is those directors who instead of fitting their voices to ready-made conventions have not been afraid to re-mould the conventions to fit their own particular voices, that I find most rewarding and worthy of recurrent interest.
Never break a convention for the sake of it. Never retain a convention for the sake of it.
7. Terms and Conditions. I’ve no interest in conventions. On the other hand I have no particular interest in ignoring them. So: a film script, not a film but a script, a template for a film. It lists a number of things that happen. It hints at certain relationships. It suggests certain emotions. At each juncture, with each shot, questions arise the answers to which, the solutions to which, must be focused inevitably towards the truthful dissection of those relationships and emotions. In the end, as directors from Godard to Ozu to Dreyer to Bergman emphasized, it’s the truth of the film that matters.
I like this: Alexander Payne never uses storyboards. Instead, he and his team watch films together to try to get the feeling of the movie they want to make. I like that. That’s nice. But then again, I also like storyboards.